The Colors In Black and White

Posted January 31, 2013 in ... Thoughts On Things

One of the most difficult (and interesting) things about monochrome photography is that there is no color information in the image. Or is there? In fact color is an important element in many B&W images, and needs to be considered carefully. I talk about that in this post, and how to interpret color in B&W.

Let’s take a look at a photograph I made in August of 2012:

Eight Berries, Color DefaultThis photograph was exposed in color, which is how I expose all of my B&W work. But why do I make color photographs? After all, there’s no color in my finished images. We’ll see why in a minute. But first notice the colors in this particular photograph. The berries are a brilliant red, and the leaves are bright green (or maybe even yellow-green). The saturated color palette is an almost overpowering feature of this subject.

In fact, color is an important feature of human vision, whether the colors are muted or bright and saturated. And just as in color photography, color needs to be carefully considered in monochrome photography. In B&W photography, color is not an element of its own, but must be integrated into other elements in the photograph–composition, tone, contrast, pattern, and other graphic elements.

Turning Color Into Monochrome

Most photography software will easily convert a color image into a monochrome image. I use Lightroom 4 (LR4) for the majority of my image processing. (It’s made by Adobe, the same folks who make the well-known program known as Photoshop.)  With a simple ‘click’ I can convert this photograph into a B&W image.

Eight Berries, Black & White ZeroedNow I’ll be the first to admit that the monochrome version is a bit bland. What happened to the contrast of the red berries against the green leaves? In the B&W image both appear to be a middle grey. In fact, both the berries and the leaves reflect nearly the same amount of light but they reflect different colors of light. The berries reflect lots of red light, and similarly the leaves reflect lots of green light. There is plenty of color contrast between the berries and the leaves, but very little tonal contrast between them. But I’ll do something about this shortly.

Lightroom hasn’t forgotten about the color in the photograph. All the original colors are still hidden in the photograph. When I converted this image into B&W using Lightroom, I used settings to weight each color in the spectrum equally. With this setting, if a red object and a green object both reflect the same amount of light, they both appear in the image as the same tone of grey.

There is another setting in Lightroom which tries to automatically adjust the tones of various colors in the photograph in a more appealing way.

Eight Berries, Black & White Auto The results are not a whole lot better. The image may look a bit better than the first image, but I think we can adjust it manually ourselves to do a better job.

We’ll experiment with that next.

Experimenting With The B&W Mix

One of the great things about Lightroom is that I can move a few sliders and instantly see a change in the photograph. That’s what I’m going to do now.

Eight Berries, Reds Darkened & Greens LightenedHere, I darkened the reds much more and lightened the greens quite a bit.

Now that’s a significant change! Now the berries look almost black against light-colored leaves. Keep in mind that these changes took literally seconds to accomplish. And the changes can be seen on the screen in real time as I move the sliders.

Let’s try the opposite for fun–we’ll lighten the reds and darken the greens:

Eight Berries, Reds Lightened & Greens DarkenedThat’s amazing! The berries now look white against dark leaves. And it was done with just a few sliders. You can see how powerful this program feature is. Now these sliders don’t always produce such an extreme effect. They do in this instance because the colors in this photograph are highly saturated. (In fact, that’s why I chose this image.) But if the tonal changes can be this dramatic, it introduces a problem–what is the “correct” way to set the sliders?

Interpreting Color In Black & White

Obviously there is no correct way to set the “Black & White Mix” sliders in Lightroom. In fact, I could have made the results even more extreme by moving the sliders even further. And setting the sliders in this way can definitely make an interesting photograph. Every photographer has the right to interpret his or her photograph as he or she sees fit. But I personally was not looking for a “garish” interpretation of those berries. I was struck by the simple composition of the eight red berries set against the bright green leaves. I wanted the berries to contrast against the leaves, but I also wanted the image to appear “natural”. And so I chose a mix like this:

Eight Berries, My Chosen Black & White MixSetting the sliders in this way did a few things that I liked. First, it produced what I think is a good natural interpretation of the berries and leaves. There is contrast between the reds and greens (but it isn’t too extreme). The red berries, I felt, looked more natural when they were slightly darker than the leaves.

And the great thing is that I didn’t really have to think about the science of it, I just set the sliders so that everything looked good.

Making the berries dark has a bonus–the highlights on the berries are clearly seen and contrast nicely with the darker berries. The high contrast here is important. In color photography, your eye is naturally drawn to reds, and also to contrasting colors. In B&W, you don’t have the luxury of using color. So what draws your eye in monochrome photography? Many things draw the eye, including pattern, texture, brightness, sharpness, and areas of high contrast. In the picture of the eight berries I use these elements. The highlight pattern on the eight berries provided a repeating pattern of sharp, high contrast to draw the eye.

After the important color choices were made in this photograph, I made additional changes to the photograph. I changed some things throughout the entire photograph–“global” changes, and made some more changes in specific parts of the photograph–“local” changes. All these things were done in Lightroom. And the final image looks like this (click on the image for a larger view):

Eight Berries